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A company rebounds after learning hard lessons from COVID-19 outbreak

Blake Farmer Jun 8, 2020
Heard on:
The sales team at Dunlap & Kyle sits just outside General Manager Adam Waldrup's office, and most of them contracted COVID-19, with the first confirmed case April 2. Blake Farmer/WPLN News

A company rebounds after learning hard lessons from COVID-19 outbreak

Blake Farmer Jun 8, 2020
Heard on:
The sales team at Dunlap & Kyle sits just outside General Manager Adam Waldrup's office, and most of them contracted COVID-19, with the first confirmed case April 2. Blake Farmer/WPLN News

In the Nashville, Tennessee, warehouse of Dunlap & Kyle, forklifts honk their way through the heavy scent of rubber amid 250,000 square feet of consumer and commercial grade tires. But the tire distributor’s outbreak, which began in late March, started in the wood-paneled office of General Manager Adam Waldrup.

He developed cold-like symptoms, got tested and found out he had COVID-19.

“It’s just so hard to figure out the source,” he said. “We have so many people in and out of here. We have traveling salesmen, which at that point we’d brought in. But we deliver tires, so there’s just no telling.”

The corporate office in Batesville, Mississippi, abruptly messaged everyone in Nashville to pack up their stuff, go home and get tested. But it was already too late. Waldrup’s wife, 2-year-old son and mother-in-law fell ill.

And the virus had already infected a majority of the sales team, which sits in a bullpen of cubicles just outside Waldrup’s office, often meeting around his long conference table.

Waldrup points out the employees who tested positive: about a dozen workers, 1 in 6 employees. Waldrup said they’ve had to get comfortable with sharing lots of otherwise private health information.

Adam Waldrup, general manager of tire distributor Dunlap & Kyle, donates plasma after recovering from COVID-19. He was the first of 12 employees to get sick. All of them are now getting time off to donate plasma, which is used to treat the sickest COVID-19 patients. (Courtesy Adam Waldrup)

At first, no one else was showing symptoms, even those who tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I didn’t notice for the first couple days,” said Tyler Smallwood, who is the IT manager for the office. “It wasn’t until I used some hand sanitizer and it had no smell. I was like, that doesn’t seem right.’”

Most had mild cases, but the oldest — the sales manager — came down with the worst symptoms. Frank Harvey said he left the office on that Thursday afternoon worried about the business and hitting his numbers.

Then, when his temperature spiked and sent him to TriStar Hendersonville Medical Center, he went into survival mode.

“You’ve got all the factors going against you. You’re just a tad bit overweight, and you’re past 60,” he said. “So it’s pretty scary.”

Harvey recovered. So did his colleagues and their households. And now they’re back at it, mostly focused on selling tires but trying to be more diligent about infection control than before.

They’re still not wearing masks, but they have them handy. And a clerical employee is tasked with taking everyone’s temperature in the morning when they arrive.

All these new protocols have had companies turning to the National Federation of Independent Business for guidance.

“The new reality is setting in, and it’s tiring,” said Elizabeth Milito, senior counsel for the NFIB.

The NFIB is receiving basic but complicated inquiries: Whom do you have take temperatures? Or do you even really want to go that far if it’s not required? And how private can you even be at this point about everyone’s personal health?

The business group has been offering guidance to all kinds of companies, from warehouses to nail salons. Milito said everyone she’s working with is eager and optimistic, telling her “we’re just going to try to make lemonade out of lemons and get back to work,” she said.

Dunlap & Kyle is trying to put its experience with COVID-19 to good use. Employees who’ve recovered are getting time off to donate plasma as often as possible. The plasma is being used around the world to help the sickest COVID-19 patients in hospitals.

Meanwhile, the company has become more comfortable making its experience public. Managers were nervous when they first told customers they were dealing with an outbreak. But the tire shops they work with stuck with them, said salesman Ty Cordray.

“Since we’ve come back, we’ve been busier than we’ve ever been,” he said. “We think it’s because we were honest and upfront.”

Somehow, May was the best month the company has ever had, with business up by 30%. And June is projected to be even better.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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